Thursday, March 7, 2013

Phenomenological Theism and the Phenomenology of Moral Experience

I am presenting this at Steubenville’s Must Morality Be Grounded in God? Conference. This is still very much a work in progress.
Consider what I call the Argument from Moral Experience:

(1) Moral facts are experienced as being objective and non-natural.
(2) The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is based on phenomenological theism.
(3) Phenomenological theism is the thesis that God is immanently revealed in moral action.
(4) Therefore, the experience of moral facts provides evidence for thinking theism is true.

In the following lecture, I would like to assess the argument from moral experience. My argument from moral experience is inspired by a rendition of the typical Moral Argument for God’s Existence:

(1’) Moral facts are objective and non-natural.
(2’) The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is theism. 
(3’) Therefore, the experience of moral facts provides evidence for thinking theism is true.

            The difference between these two arguments is based on shifting the inference from the existence of God to the experience of God. For the experience of God is immanent in moral action, and what we want from morality can only acquire a sense and meaning from looking at the structure of moral experience where God is felt. I will admit that part of this analysis is inspired both by Scheler and Levinas, but my real ambition is to get at the heart of the arguments as to why we might think Scheler and Levinas correct in these matters. Let me speak to the organization of this essay.
First, I will explain the grounds for holding each premise, and why I find it far superior to the Moral Argument for God’s Existence. Next, I will offer phenomenological reasons why the conclusion follows from the premises. In the Argument from Moral Experience, this will involve an in depth analysis of premise (2), which is doing most of the work of the aforementioned argument. Second, I will explain the motivations for why I focused on the phenomenology of moral experience as a reason for concluding theism is true.
            (1) could have been stated different, such as “ (1’) Moral facts exist as objective and non-natural.” The assertion of extant moral facts is harder to prove than the experience of moral facts. The hard moral realist asserts the existence of an independently true body of moral statements, which are true and treated very much the same way as one might treat the belief that “Cats are mammals.” We treat the moral belief that “People should be fair to each other” as suggesting something true for all situations to which people would relate to each other. The reason why the hard moral realist finds moral claims convincing is that they can oblige us from the simple fact that they are true.
(1’) however proves too much. First, the hard moral realist is metaphysically extravagant. He wants objectivity so much that he treats moral claims like scientific claims. However, the truth conditions for such objectivity distort how we experience values. First, we do not experience values as an object of knowledge. They are felt deeply in intentional feeling. Second, we do not assent to a proposition like a controlled scientific inquiry. Instead, values are felt in exigent situations about the goods in question. Moreover, the last two experiential reasons are motivations for why someone might insist upon the truth of hard moral realism, but without a careful phenomenological analysis of experience, the hard moral realist often is self-serving in those features of experience he selects about experience that motivates endorsing his extravagant metaethical position.
            Let us look, then, at some features of moral experience more carefully. If both you and I share a similar feeling, we can intend the same value. Let us use the oft-repeated example that you and I stand some distance from a group of teenagers setting a cat on fire. There is nothing physical in that situation to which we normally assign value, and yet we employ value-talk about the situation. At this point, we are safe to assume that we experience the cat burning as unnecessary suffering, and this action bears the value cruelty beyond belief. If we asked the teenagers why they did it, we might try to find some abuse in their background or some underlying motivation for why they set the cat on fire, but looking for motivation of someone is different than the felt-demand of value in that situation. We experience the wrongness of that suffering deeply. From the experience, we begin to see that we have some language to talk about how both you and I felt about that act. To see if we have the same moral hunches and reactions, we talk to others that react predictably similar to the same situation. Setting cats on fire is felt as cruel. From this common co-feeling about the situation, we can conclude that there is some reliable objectivity in how I and others feel and that nothing physical in that situation could account for the feeling of cruelty manifest in our acts.
            In (2), the phenomenology is the explanation. Usually, metaethical positions import the assumptions about reality as why we experience the world as we do, but phenomenological description reverses this priority and looks to describe an experience of an exemplar phenomenon before inferring ontological commitments. One might object that this makes phenomenology, then, self-serving for what it wants from ontology. However, I concede some of this without admitting the self-serving nature of phenomenological method. Presupposing metaethical commitments about moral experience before looking to experience itself is worse than looking to experience as a way to solve philosophical problems. For the phenomenologist, taking experience for granted means removing philosophy from the concerns of those that live it. In such distancing, metaphysics can be employed to assert categories about experience that are not found within experience at all, and such attempts could presuppose an ontology about particular values. One motivation shared amongst phenomenologists is the want for philosophy to concern itself with concrete matters of lived experience rather than proposing any conceptualization removed from experience.
            In moral experience, we experience values as being on the backs of goods, deeds and persons. We feel these values between us despite their lack of physical tangibility. We re-feel what someone else feels and in that feeling, we are presented with value’s givenness. Intentional feeling is correlated to a specific value-quality. Bliss fills our whole personality with the Absolute value of the Holy. Our feeling of health is connected to how our environment is given to us. In the highest value of the Holy, our capacity to feel alongside others is renewed in the highest possible way. We are instilled with a perspective completely outside of us that comes unto us in ritual and religious experience more generally. Thus, when premise (2) predicates “objective” and “non-natural” features of morality, these qualities are aspects of experiencing intentional-feeling associated within religion. God is the source to which we aim, and in aiming to that which is completely Other we become oriented towards that which is pure difference in our very action. We can easily welcome both widow and orphan to be fed by having a renewed connection to Christ in the Eucharist. The singular unique otherness of the other/person finds expression in both Levinas and Scheler. The person is given to us as a possibility within the immanence of the suffering Other. “Objective” here means “intersubjective” and is due to our capacity to re-feel what others feel that binds us to others and the emanating presence where God is felt. Before God, we are all unique. In relation to Him, I am Ed, a Ph.D. graduate from SIU, born in New Jersey and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My wife is Ashley, born in Youngstown Ohio and thankfully a Steelers fan. There is nobody like her or me in existence. That’s the point. The objectivity takes on a new sense within phenomenology. The objectivity in other moral philosophies amounts to a substitutable other. Before Kantianism, we are all agents. Either you or I ought to do the same thing in relation to the categorical imperative. Both the non-formal ethics of Levinas and Scheler attempt to supplant this modernist tendency of equalizing differences between people and insist upon the radical unique otherness of the “person.” Ashley is not valuable due to species membership, the fact that she is a rational agent or any other criterion beyond herself. Instead, Ashley is absolutely unique, and it follows from her radical uniqueness objectively that she is absolutely valuable. In fact, the possibility to love another rests on accepting the singular uniqueness an-other person.
            Second, “non-natural” follows on the heel of the singular uniqueness of persons. On this point, phenomenological evidence is rather convincing. The fact that a person can never be objectified or reduced to another category is what it means to be a person. Instead, persons are of spirit. We cannot be adequately categorized since we are beyond categorization and simultaneously we are the source of that categorization. Persons are the source of meaning in the world, and consequently, they cannot be derived from that which they engender. Persons are not reducible to anything in the world. If intentional feeling precedes all pre-volitional and pre-cognitive experience, then it is only from the shared intentional capacity of persons that is responsible for why experienced objects in life have meaning (and therefore value). Scheler’s later metaphysics aims to articulate a view beyond the phenomenological but preserving the insight of the person’s non-objectifiable spirit and at the same time how persons and God participate in being together.
According to Scheler, the person encounters a world in its vital urge. The vital urge reaches outward towards a goal in the world, and the world is given to us in resistance. The vital urge is rarely satisfied and if it attains its goal and the world conforms in some way to us, the world will comply ever so briefly. Then, life will be given to us in this worldly resistance once more, and we will not be sated. Within this movement, the coming-to-be feltness of the resisting world is called value. In this way, values are at the spiritual act-center of the person reaching out and filling the content of our experience of actions, things and others. When we relate to another, when we help another person, they – like us – encounter a life in which our drives, energy and desire find resistance in the world around us. All reality is given in resistance but capable of ever higher spiritualization. While spirit is initially impotent to physically affect the world, we can experience a calling within our vital-urges and learn to suspend their effect on us. Thus, by suspending our attention to the vital-urge’s movement to a resisting world and thereby suffering, human beings can apprehend a higher value than simply their vital-urges. This happens when we act on love and within acting in love, God stands between us and others, or what is meant in premise (3). We can aspire to the level of spiritual feeling and values of Holiness. Thus, again the point of religion is to open ourselves up towards the inherent spiritualization in human life and realize it in all we do.
The point of phenomenological theism is not to replace the sense of God has in His own right. Instead, accepting “(2’) The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is theism” commits one to adopt the same phenomenological reasons inherent in the Schelerian commitments I have explained here. Typically, an objective value is one that can be demonstrated publically according to norms and justifications. There are many possible ways we might do this. We might show that the consequences in one outcome maximize better than in another outcome. We might show that one course of action is more rational than another. However, the point matters not how we justify a course of action. Instead, these approaches presuppose the very phenomenology of experience underlying my motivation for emphasizing the phenomenological insight over (2’). The utilitarian assumes value is already knowable and that there is something like an impartial perspective to which various outcomes can be assessed. The impartial standpoint in this secularly committed approach relies upon an experience of thinking objectivity and non-naturalism true. Values stand between people with respect to feeling; they are irreducibly part of another’s experience, and yet we act upon them because in participating in value the manifest benefit grows out of the presence of that action. More secular theories might call this elevation of goodness in the world acts of beneficence. In such a way, the intersubjectivity of what these people take to be “objective” and valuable is wholly realized in action between them and what becomes realized is a commitment to love the other. This love manifests insofar as the utilitarian is more sophisticated in what she seeks to maximize beyond mere hedonic calculation, but let’s leave this alone for now. As long as the moral philosophy in question seeks to realize values through action, there is something like a growth, a becoming, a presence of beneficence underlying the affection such action brings. This is the experience in question that is shared between secular and sacred approaches to values.
            The growth and becoming of love suspends the descending effect drives have upon us whereas love participates in the intersubjective spirit of persons. For Scheler, persons can only be those that can suspend the effect of drives upon us and reflectively bring into awareness the act of suspending drives. Thus, persons and God are capable of this, but when love takes on the highest value of the Holy, individuals become given as absolutely other. There is no higher value than the absolute value of the Holy. In this way, the intersubjective constitution of community can be based upon a commitment to the Holy in the immanence of our firsthand experience of Others. In our case, this commitment is the directedness of my intentional act loves the other person as they are without imposing upon them any objectification. Hence, objectification cannot be a source of making the other a victim or reason for justifying abuse. Since spirit is pure non-objectifiability, I can only leave the other be as a unique other before God. In this way we can see the role of premise (3). The immanence of the singular otherness comes by encountering them as each person is, singular and unique. In the 20th century, the massive abuses of genocide arise out of the tendency for governments and people to judge others through objectified categories. A Jew can be less than human, so can Blacks in the American South. The point is rather striking. By acknowledging God as a source of immanent otherness underlying the otherness of people I encounter in life, I adopt a philosophy incapable of re-presenting the singular uniqueness of an-other. Instead, through God, we start with the recognition of singular uniqueness and preserve the commitment to the non-objectifiability of human beings first and foremost before all other commitments in philosophy. This prohibition of objectification delimits the possibility of a metaphysics of human beings at all.
            Finally, “the experience of moral facts” establishes a deduced relation to “thinking theism true.” I am suspicious of metaphysics. Like Levinas, I want to supplant the tendency of Western thinking to avoid “the logic of the same” or what Scheler repeatedly calls “objectification.” The practical consequences of the 20th century’s abuses have all subordinated the radical otherness of the person to some category that dehumanizes. In fact, we might read this subordination of the person to categories of metaphysical speculation in the tendency of modernity to de-personalize the person. Instead, the first philosophy is not metaphysics, but the ontology of the person. There is only one being that is wholly other than I can re-present Him/It, and this is God. As Jean Valjean sings towards the end of Le Miserable: “To love the other person is to see the face of God.” In Schelerian speak, this realization is the recognized givenness of the person within the experience of their very uniqueness—what he calls “spirit.”
Of course, I broadened this insight, and claimed that “the experience of moral facts” confirms “thinking theism true.” A moral fact could be the recognition of a proposition that expresses that I owe others charity when I can manage it at no cost to myself. Moral facts are propositionalized positive and negative expressions of what I owe others. In our moral imagination, we often imagine what it might mean to fulfill some mysterious action and sometimes we want to universalize all others like the imagined other and the imagined action as a basis for how others would act given the same set of conditions. Yet, such an approach is dedicated to the objectification if the intention may have been seeking out only what I ought to do in that situation. I do not regard the others as anything other than those that again can be substituted for another.

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